Whilst I was away recently, I missed a strongly worded exchange on SHED-SHARE about the latest wheeze from the increasingly febrile Copernicus Alliance. This is yet another document that universities are expected to sign up to, and is more evidence that all the (20+) previous ones haven't had much effect, despite their self-important positionings. You certainly don't have to be overly cynical to see the natural history of such declarations as being mostly of this form:
University presidents sign up – there is modest publicity but little communication – everyone then gets on with business as usual
So is the latest attempt, which is being produced in the run up to Rio, any different? Well, this time around it's got a pretentious title: it's a treaty:
A People's Sustainabilty Treaty on Higher Education towards Sustainable Development
It has an ambitious timescale beyond 2026, and its preamble says this:
The Treaty has been drafted by representatives from twenty five higher education agencies, organisations, associations and student groups rooted in different parts of the world. The cross-cultural dialogue and development process underpinning this document has served to build collaborative links and ownership. It has paved the way for a new consolidated platform for cooperation beyond the Rio+20 event in June 2012. It is envisaged that the document could lead to joint implementation projects and the sharing of best practices as well as modalities that are less bureaucratic.
We're told there are 8 principles – though principles of what isn't clear (or that they are, in fact, principles) – and there are 19 action points. Here's the first, which is to be implemented by "no later than" mid-2013:
Transforming the paradigms that underpin current higher education practice. We will draw lessons from previous successes and shortcomings, to redefine the higher education system with a new vision and purpose. Those committing to this treaty will engage in reviewing their organisational ambitions and action plans to ensure there is alignment with this action.
All in 12 months. Complete nonsense, of course, as commentators on SHED-SHARE pointed out. For example, ...
It seems misplaced to expect a transformation of paradigm as a short term action – it won't happen. What should be required is an in-depth discussion of the purposes of HE in the kind of times and conditions we now inhabit.
Exactly right, though rather open ended for a people's treaty.
What really get's to you, however, as you read through the deadly, but very earnest prose, is the lack of argumentation and any conceptual framing to what's proposed – and there's on sense that any of this might actually be rather difficult. Dear, oh Dear!
Here's a flavour of the comments:
* I am ... concerned that graduates have no specific roles in the document, especially in terms of being valued and considered for what they can/could contribute.
* ... it needs to state something about the responsibility of HE to provide graduates with the competencies and dispositions that they will need to cope with, shape and manage in a rapidly changing world. (The word 'graduate' doesn't appear anywhere in the document).
* The vision and clarity of purpose section might benefit by incorporating a bottom up acknowledgment of being responsive to graduate needs, such as life skills - some of which are innovative and others where transferable elements/flexibility need to be made more transparent
* This document sounds shrill in it's urgency and while I might personally recognise the imperative for early change I fear that many traditional institutions / colleagues with high regard for academic freedom might find it impossible to sign up to
* Transformation is fine, and important, but I think there is insufficient guidance/clarity about 'from what to what'.
* Arguably, in organisational learning terms, an institution would normally go through a reformative stage first whereby assumptions and values begin to be questioned.
As Dr Johnson said: the wonder is not that it is done badly, but that it is done at all. What is the point?